Sunday, November 25, 2007

A Leaving and a Staying

There were two events of significance in this community during the past week. Br Bernard, who has been with us a bit less than 4 years, and who is in Annual Vows, renewed his vow for another year. Br Robert, who is a novice, departed for a year's stay at our monastery in South Africa.

Holy Cross tends to believe that people integrate into the community best if they are drawn into our work life as well as our prayer life, and so both of these men are and have been central in the functioning of the house. Bernard is in charge of the application process for men from the eastern part of the United States who want to enter the novitiate of the community. As a former international banker he is also a mover and a shaker on our Finance Committee, and is serves on the Guesthouse staff as the person in charge of group reservations. Rob was a parish priest when he came to us, having spent the past 17 years in Stone Ridge, about a half-hour west of us, and for the two years before he entered he was an Oblate of the community and lived here part-time, so we've known him for a long time. In addition to his novitiate formation program he has been a key member of the Bookstore staff, and he has been in charge of most of the work in our sacristy. He also has been one of the key members of the Guesthouse staff - the person who sees to it that the guests are supplied with linens! We have used many of the gifts that these men have to offer and we have come to depend on them.

This didn't happen overnight. Entering a monastic community is not an easy business for anyone concerned - either the candidate or the community. Because most of the men entering our novitiate are middle-aged, they have had their own careers, their own relationships (sometimes their own families), their own possessions, their own lives. They are used to deciding how they want things to be, and to getting things done in their own way. They leave all of this when they come to us, and embark on the process of finding out how a community - especially this community - does things. It's fair to say that no one finds this process a continuous delight.

In a community of 15 people, no decision gets made as quickly as it would if you were making it yourself. No difficulty is addressed as smoothly as it would be if you were doing it yourself. No meal is served just the way you would have it. You are likely to find yourself doing things for which you don't have much preparation and to which you don't have much attraction. (Scott is fond of telling the story of how, when he was getting ready to come here, he told all his friends that everything would go well for him as long as he wasn't assigned to the Bookstore. And of course on the first day he was here, I, all unknowing, assigned him to the Bookstore.) (He did great.) Regardless of how prepared you think you are for this transition, no one is really prepared for it, and everyone finds it difficult. And so we know about the bewilderment, and confusion, and the consequent anger and depression that can accompany this process.

This is hard to live with. For one thing it keeps the professed members of the community in a constant state of uncertainty. Nothing we do or are goes unchallenged by those entering the community. There's no such thing as knowing that everything will remain the way it is, so long as new men are granted a share in the decision-making. No one guarantees that the new monks will think that what we are doing is the right or best way to do things, or that our goals and ideals are even acceptable, much less perfect. All of our cracks and crevices are available for inspection and comment - all the time.

This is just to say that if a man enters this community and decides to stay, both he and we have put a lot of work into the decision. There's been a lot of hard times, and sometimes a lot of conflict. It's been an up and down process, with lots of downs. No one survives this process without a lot of patience. And through it all we really do come to love each other, and people who view our community from the outside say that this is clear to them when they look at us.

So when a transition comes up it's a big deal for everyone concerned. Bernard has to decide, every year, whether this is the place that he wants to be. Does he want to go on living this life, with all of the rewards and all of the failures that are part of this very human community. What would we do if he decides to leave? That is painful to look at. Rob is going to South Africa partly because all of the novices live for a while in one of our other monasteries to get an idea of how the Holy Cross life is lived in different places and circumstances, and partly because that house has only one priest in residence, and could really use the support of another one.

Bernard's renewal of his vow was greeted with a lot of joy and affirmation. Now we can breathe out, after holding our breaths over his decision. We know we will have the benefit of his presence, his good humor, his skill and his considerable charm, caused not least by his Belgian-French accent and his occasional lapses in the use of the English language.

Rob's parting from us was certainly more difficult on both sides. His integration into the community has had its stormy passages, but his boat has sailed out into smoother waters by this time, and we have enjoyed him a lot. That means (surprise!) that we're going to miss him a lot. The separation was not easy for him, either. He rang our tower bell for the last time on his way to the car that drove him to Kennedy Airport. He let go of us with considerable ambiguity, as we did of him. It was painful.

So it's been quite a week. A time of affirmation and a time of sorrow. A time of keeping and a time of letting go - all done in the context of the bells ringing and the Psalms being chanted, the pattern of life that has governed this place for more than a hundred years.

You all have your own version of this process, of course. Keeping and letting go are part of every life. Our job is to live it as fully as we can, both the ups and the downs, and make it part of the process of our redemption - to pray it. It's what we call life, and the living of all of it is common to every human being, monks included.

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